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HomeSpotlight Story | Bird’s Eye View | Budget & Taxes | Politics & Leadership | Governors | Hot Issues | Once Around the Statehouse Lightly
In this space last year we noted the key word in sussing out America’s legislative landscape in 2017 would be uncertainty, due primarily to questions and concerns over the incoming presidential administration and one party having control over Congress, the White House and, for all intents and purposes, the Supreme Court of the United States. Now, after almost a year of lawsuits, court rulings, executive orders and Congressional and executive branch dysfunction, it’s clear that chaotic would have been the more appropriate term.
And if you thought this year was frenzied you might want to buckle up. With the pressure and fervor of mid-term elections added to the mix, 2018 could be an even wilder ride.
But whatever surreal trials and tribulations go on inside the Beltway, state lawmakers and governors will do what they always do: report to work and address the wide range of issues and problems facing their states. Not surprisingly, many of the hottest topics of 2018 are likely to be familiar, as will the bitter rancor and hyperpartisan posturing that has infected many high profile battles in recent years.
In that regard, this issue marks the first of the SNCJ staff’s annual three-part look at how we see next year shaping up, starting this week with my take on some of 2018’s likely hot issues. My colleague Korey Clark will offer his views next week, followed the week after with some perspective and insight from our esteemed senior advisor Lou Cannon.
Health care: The government’s role in health care may be the preeminent issue of our generation. President Donald Trump made overturning the Affordable Care Act a major part of his platform during his 2016 campaign, vowing numerous times to do away with the program and replace it with “something great” and “a lot less expensive” for everyone. But today’s campaign promises often fall flat when faced with the political reality of kicking millions of people off of their health insurance. Confronted with extreme opposition even from within their own party – particularly from GOP governors - Congressional Republicans failed miserably in multiple attempts to kill the law most people now call Obamacare.
Few observers expect that to be the last word. With the president continuing to call for killing the law, state lawmakers are keeping a wary eye on what comes out of D.C. next year. Optimists think the repeated failures to overturn Obamacare will finally lead to a bipartisan effort to fix some of the law’s many faults in an effort to stabilize health care markets and keep skyrocketing premium costs under control.
Pessimists, however, point to the Trump administration’s decision to end subsidy payments made to health insurers to help mitigate the cost of insuring low-income consumers who buy plans through a state or federal health benefits exchange. That, observers contend, has caused even greater price instability in the health insurance markets. And as of this writing, the massive tax overhaul under consideration in the Senate would eradicate the ACA’s individual mandate, which in turn would lead to even higher health premiums.
Perhaps even more troubling, with Congress’s failure to reauthorize and fund the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), dozens of states are expected to soon be forced to close down health programs that collectively cover 9 million poor kids and 370,000 pregnant women nationwide.
Federal turmoil notwithstanding, some states are pondering their own major health care policy reforms. Massachusetts and California, for example, are expected to take new looks at single-payer options, while Massachusetts and Arkansas are awaiting federal approval on requests to scale back previous Medicaid expansions to cover only those with incomes that meet the federal poverty level rather than the 138 percent standard the ACA allows. Others are looking at doing away with so-called “retroactive” Medicaid, which allows for covering bills dating three months back from when a person’s coverage began.
Earlier this year Nevada lawmakers sent Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) a proposal that would have made the Silver State the first to open its Medicaid rolls to all residents. Sandoval vetoed the bill but its author – Assemblymember Mike Sprinkle (D) – has said he plans to address the governor’s concerns with the measure and reintroduce it in 2018. A pair of single payer options have also been introduced in Congress, one by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) and another by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).
Climate Change: Donald Trump might be pulling the U.S. government out of the Paris Climate Accord, but a coalition of governors – led by California Gov. Jerry Brown, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, all Democrats - mayors and private companies say they are staying put. What that means in terms of statehouse activity remains to be seen, but meeting the emissions reductions goals set forth in the PAC was going to be a heavy lift even with America’s full involvement.
Opioids: States have made numerous efforts in recent years to slow the scourge of opioid overdose deaths plaguing much of America. Some of those policies include making the anti-overdose drug naloxone more readily available, ensuring first responders are equipped with an ample supply of the antidote and enacting restrictions on how medical personnel prescribe opioid pain medications. But with overdose deaths still rampant, lawmakers in several states have announced plans for even more bills targeting the epidemic. One other recent tack that is also likely to garner new converts: states, cities and counties suing drug makers over their role in the crisis. To date, over 100 municipalities have filed such suits, while 41 state attorneys general have subpoenaed a group of opioid suppliers in an effort to determine, according to New York AG Eric Schneiderman (D), “whether or not there was deception involved, if manufacturers misled doctors and patients about the efficacy and addictive power of these drugs.”
Marijuana Legalization: A 2017 Gallup poll showed that 64 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legalized, the highest total in the survey’s history. Eight states and the District of Columbia currently allow limited legal recreational weed usage, while 29 states and D.C. allow marijuana use for medical reasons. With potentially billions of dollars in revenue on the line, it is a safe bet more will be looking to follow suit in 2018. Vermont came very close earlier this year to being the first state to legalize recreational use through the legislature (SB 22), but Gov. Phil Scott (R) vetoed the measure. Several other states, including Delaware and Rhode Island, may well beat them to it.
Sexual Harassment: What started out as scandalous allegations against Hollywood uber producer Harvey Weinstein in late summer has rapidly morphed into an indictment of widespread sexual misconduct across numerous industries, including government. The fallout in statehouses has already been significant and shows no sign of abating. Lawmakers in Minnesota and California have stepped down over harassment allegations, and legislative leaders in multiple states have said they will implement new policies aimed at overcoming what many victims and advocates say has been a lax attitude about investigating those complaints. More resignations could follow, and even more statehouses are sure to require broader sexual harassment training - at the very least – for lawmakers, staff and even lobbyists.
Workplace Issues: Lawmakers are likely to address a wide array of workplace issues in 2018, including paid family leave, gender pay equity, salary history, sexual harassment, gender or racial discrimination and background checks. Other issues also expected to garner significant attention include:
Predictive Scheduling: In recent years dozens of states have considered bills to require large employers to notify their employees of their work schedule at least a week in advance, but none had become law until Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed SB 828 in August. Similar statutes have been enacted, or soon will be, in many local municipalities as well, which is likely to strengthen the push to enact those measures in more states.
Workforce Development: Although unemployment is at its lowest level in years, employers across the country say tens of thousands of jobs are going unfilled over a lack of qualified workers for those positions. A growing number of states are now looking at programs that help develop workers to fit so-called “middle skills” positions, which require workers to have more than a high school diploma but not necessarily a four-year college degree. One such program in Colorado, which has drawn both high praise from Centennial State employers and over $25 million in funding from Microsoft, is likely to expand to several more states in 2018. A similar program is already underway in Indiana, the brainchild of Gov. Eric Holcomb (R).
Gig Economy: The so-called gig economy, i.e. short-term or contract work done by freelancers, usually part-time and set up via a cell phone app (think Uber, Lyft or Task Rabbit), has seen dramatic growth in recent years. Some of that growth has undoubtedly been by choice from more independent or entrepreneurially-minded workers. But just as much has likely been from necessity as full-time jobs with decent wages have become harder to find. And while the gig economy gives workers some newfound freedom, those jobs don’t come with health or other benefits, and the tax hassles may also give gig workers migraines. That has sparked some worker advocacy groups like the New York City-based Independent Drivers’ Guild to call for state legislation imposing a fee on each gig economy transaction, with the money going into a central fund that will pay for workers’ benefits. Washington and New Jersey have considered bills with similar aims. There is also legislation in the U.S. Senate (SB 1549) that would alter the tax code to better fit gig workers. It is a safe bet more bills dealing with the gig economy will be appearing in statehouses everywhere in 2018.
Preemption Measures: The relationship between local, state and federal lawmakers has always been complex. While still more often partners than not, in recent years there has been an uptick in states adopting laws that bar local governments from enacting their own rules on employee wages, benefits, the environment and immigration policy among many other things. (This was in fact at the heart of North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill” in 2016.) The practice shows no signs of abating any time soon. In May, for instance, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed HB 243, legislation that bars Peach State cities and counties from adopting their own rules on predictive scheduling. There is little reason to believe this trend will abate in 2018.